The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 35

Duchess Agresa Sanli considered herself a patriot, fighting for Gallagrin’s well being. That she defined “Gallagrin” as including only those nobles and their subjects who supported her position was not an uncommon stance among those she called friends. To their minds, Gallagrin belonged only to those who had made it great in the past and that was clearly people like themselves who were poised to make it great again.

That Sanli’s alliance with the Queen of Paxmer ran contrary to Gallagrin’s internal and external interests was a matter of debate which Sanli didn’t feel the need to enter into. The reality was that Gallagrin had been held in the grip of mad monarchs for far too long and that the current queen combined an insane desire to placate the peasantry with an intolerable willingness to defy the expressed needs of her noble supporters.

Sanli herself had sided with the Butcher King during the revolt until it became clear that his daughters faction had passed the crucial tipping point. Despite sensibly changing her allegiance to the winning faction before the battles were completed, the new queen offered Sanli no additional favors and no additional recompense from the losers stockpiles.

In the end Sanli had emerged poorer from the reunification both in terms of military forces and raw wealth. Six years of careful planning had positioned her at the verge of reclaiming all that and more, and then the queen had lost her mind once more. Rather than simply dying, she’d made a pact with some demon knight who’d come flying in to slaughter both Sanli’s ally the Duke of Tel and the Consort-King Halreck.

Sanli had learned from the long years of King Sathe’s reign to keep her alliances hidden and so no one had suspected her of being in league with Duke Telli and his plan to remove the queen from the throne. That had left her in the unique position of being able to review the failed plan and improve on the mistakes which Telli and Halrek had made.

The Gallagrin pact spirit had not let the queen die when Halrek betrayed her. He’d weakened her connection it, so it should have been possible to kill the evil witch, but she’d been able to draw on the pact spirit’s reserves to sustain her life long enough to reclaim its full power. As the Consort-King Halrek had been able to press a claim on the pact spirit, but his blood had been the blood of a foreign land and so the spirit’s had resisted the pull of his claim.

Sanli’s blood didn’t suffer from that weakness however.

That wasn’t what led her to believe she would succeed in ousting the Bloody Handed Queen however. In Sanli’s view there was a deeper flaw in Halrek and Telli’s plan than they’d lived to see.

Halrek had spent six years working to build a base of support among the Gallagrin nobility. Duke Telli had been instrumental in putting those connections together. When they’d struck at Queen Alari though, they’d done so through deceit and rumor. A shocking murder of a foreign prince with the hint of scandal attached to it.

The problem with that approach was that while it titillated the nobility to think that the Queen had been unfaithful to her husband and had been willing to kill to keep her infidelity from coming to light, those who supported her saw no reason to withdraw that support. Even those who stood against Alari’s policies and were willing to openly condemn her felt no personal concern over the murder of some minor Inchesso brat. If given the same choice many of them would have dispatched the lad with little thought or care as to the consequences. Inchesso was a weak, doddering country after all, full of corruption and violence. So long as its inhabitants stayed on their own side of the realms borders, Inchesso might has well have been a non-existent state in the mind of the Gallagrin nobility.

Moving in secret and through proxies against the Queen of Gallagrin was the safe play, but Sanli knew that crowns were not won through safe strategies. That was while she’d opened talks with the Paxmer Queen. Paxmer was a deadly dangerous adversary and its queen’s appetite for power was voracious but thanks to that, Sanli knew she could trust Haldri as an ally. After the murder of her brother, Haldri had the perfect excuse and motivation to move against Gallagrin in general and Queen Alari in particular, and that was exactly what Sanli required.

The early negotiations had been tentative and circumspect, an expression of condolence and an offer of lifting border taxes to allow good to flow more freely into Paxmer. That had been followed by an invitation to visit Paxmer to discuss mutual concerns.

In Haldri, Sanli had found someone as sharp and clever and driven as herself. In another life the two could have been the most hated and well matched of enemies but with the whims of fate that blew around them, they discovered that there was common ground to stand on.

Queen Alari had to be dethroned. They were both in absolute agreement on that point.

For Haldri it was a matter of principle. Alari had slain her brother. Without trial, without ransom and without hesitation. True the hand that had wielded the blade had not been Alari’s but it was undeniable that the pact knight who slew the Consort-King was of one mind and body with the Gallagrin Queen.

Alari had compounded her crime by selling her husband’s body to an Inchesso family for royal parts to add to their poison and had returned only a disgusting and disagreeable chunk of flesh to Haldri as a keepsake. If Alari had spit in the Paxmer queen’s face, she would not have as effectively called for war between the two nations.

For Sanli, Alari’s removal from the throne was a matter of practicality. Halrek and Telli’s attempt had been proof that Alari’s hold on the crown was tenuous at best. The Queen had spent the better part of the winter recovering from wounds she sustained during the failed coup. More important though was the talk among the nobles that had swirled up in the wake of Consort King’s slaying.

Those who’d been friendly with Halrek had openly questioned the manner of his execution. The queen’s story was a compelling one but any story can be twisted to serve the needs of people with an agenda.

It was the queen’s perogative to render judgement on any of her subjects, but traditions demanded that those judgements be rendered in an official tribunal where evidence could be presented and other voices allowed to weigh in and influence the decision.

Halrek’s “purported crime” had been against the queen personally, so those of his supporters who remained bold enough to challenge her explained that as she was the only witness to the crime her testimony couldn’t be trusted.

“For all we know,” they said, “she pitched herself out of the tower and used that as an excuse to do in a husband she was tired of.”

Even the nature of the queen’s injuries were debated.

“She’s hiding away in her room because she doesn’t want us to see that they were all faked.” “If she was really as injured as she claimed, she wouldn’t have been able to make it back to the castle which just proves that she was faking it.” “Everyone knows that water sprites are dangerous monsters, if they saved the queen who knows what kind of debt she owes them.”

No theory was too implausible or unrealistic if it cast the Queen Alari in a poor light, and that, more than her wounded body, or loss of her co-ruler, told Sanli that the queen had been weakened by Halrek and Telli far more than anyone knew.

The spirit of Gallagrin was still with Alari, but the spirit of Gallagrin’s nobility was moving away from her. The mistake Halrek and Telli had made was to try to wrest the spirit from her while there were still people who supported her.

Sanli knew better than to try that. To dethrone the queen, she would have to contest with Alari for the spirit of Gallagrin and to win that contest she would have to make sure that no one was still siding with the Bloody Handed Queen.

As she strolled towards the doors of the Grand Assemblage room in Highcrest, Sanli heard the roar and bustle of the assembled nobility who had been called to the session.

It had taken careful timing. Alari’s excursion to the God’s Hall to speak with Haldri was a fixed point which all of Duchess Sanli’s plans had revolved around.

In the end many things were imperfect about the night. There were supporters of Alari who weren’t present. There were ones who were present and had not been suitably prepared for the news Sanli was bringing them. Even some of Sanli’s own supporters weren’t positioned as she wished them to be, but none of that mattered. Those were all obstacles which Sanli knew she could easily overcome. Alari’s missing supporters would be pressured in the face of the united Assemblage into rejecting her. The one’s who hadn’t been primed would resist the evidence which Sanli presented but there was too much corroboration for them to retain their belief in their queen.

Sanli entered the Grand Assemblage and took the briefest of moments to enjoy the spectacle before her.

Well over a hundred nobles and their retainers were milling around the hall and within minutes each of them would be paying attention to no one but her.

The witnesses were waiting in the inspection room and would be escorted in shortly after her introduction. She’d spoken to each of them briefly, urging them to tell the truth of what they’d seen and they’d whispered to her of the outrage and carnage that had been perpetrated on the bodies of the noble Gedli family. The details of the childrens’ roasted bodies was particularly chilling and not for the first time Sanli had wished that they’d been able to proceed with the simpler plan of actually murdering the Gedli clan, but that would have presented more significant problems in terms of execution.

Sanli didn’t know where the guildmaster had procured convincing replicas of the Gedli clan but those details weren’t ones which she needed to consider in her presentation. Her story didn’t need that sort of embellishment, not when at its heart it was so simple.

Halrek and Telli had tried to convince the nobles that Alari was wicked at heart, but in the end no one had cared about that. She was a queen, of course she was wicked. They were all wicked, every last noble family of Gallagrin.

Sanli knew that getting the nobles to condemn Alari wasn’t the path to victory. Alari’s defeat required tapping into a deeper emotion. Fear.

The noble’s needed to believe two things for Sanli to win; that Alari was weak, which her long recovery and absence from the Grand Assemblage provided ample proof of, and that she was dangerous in her weakness.

People will strike out at nothing as fiercely as they will something which they believe threatens them and which they believe they are at least momentarily stronger than.

From the testimony of the death of the Gedli family, Sanli would weave a tale that Queen Alari had succumbed to the madness of her father. She was striking out at imagined enemies and, like her father before her, was a danger to all of the nobility, both those who opposed her and those who supported her as Gedli had once done.

Sanli’s witnesses would speak of seeing the royal army moving into the south lands (and unexpected stroke of luck for Sanli’s cause). They would speak of seeing a force of royal guards head into the fort to question Gedli (a simple enough matter for Sanli to arrange) and later of those guards marching out with a series of struggling captives, men, women and children who were all hidden under hoods despite being dressed in noble garb (an even simpler ruse for Sanli to arrange).

This capture of the Gedli clan would be supported by witnesses who saw the victims being moved along the road and out into the trees before ultimately being discovered burned and desecrated by magic deep in the forests beyond the keep.

Alari’s opposition didn’t need the grand tale to declare their support for Sanli’s cause but the “facts” she presented would be so irrefutable given the eyewitness testimony and the haranguing of Sanli’s supporters that even Alari’s most ardent followers would remain silent when Sanli proposed the Rite of Severing.

Tradition dictated that only the Pact Spirit could rule on Alari’s fitness to lead the realm, and Sanli would volunteer herself to contest with Alari.

If the traditions were true then the spirit would strike down the unworthy claimant and leave the just one in full possession of its might.

Given the reign of King Sathe, Sanli knew that the spirit of Gallagrin had little care as to the quality of the one whom it gave its power too, it was only concerned with who held the hearts and minds of the realm, and after the theater she was going to present, Sanli knew that person would be her.

 

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